A Voice Teacher and a Vocal Coach- Why You Need Both!

Illustration by Nathalie

I get a lot of questions from people wanting to know what the difference is between a voice teacher and vocal coach. In this article, I will explain my thoughts on the subject.

Because singers hear themselves in a totally different way than the outside world hears them, they need a team of experts around them to be their extra ears. Singers depend on others to let them know if what they are doing sounds right, if their diction is correct, if they are musically doing the things which they are trying to do. Depending on others means that everyone will have an opinion about how you are singing, and how you should be doing things. So, how do you know who you can trust? How do you assemble such a team?

First, and in my opinion, most important, is a voice teacher. As a singer, you need someone who will go on your technical journey with you. Someone with a deep knowledge of vocal technique and who knows how to communicate it in a way which you can understand. Vocal technique is explained through a language that is unique to each teacher which is why the old saying “If the shoe fits, wear it” is an appropriate one while looking for a teacher. Sometimes the technical work is great, but your personalities do not click. Can you work like this? Should you stay in this studio? Sometimes you really get along on a personal level, but the technical gains are not happening-same questions apply. Soul searching questions and hard decisions to be made, but the most important reason to be with a teacher is that you are making vocal healthy improvements, that you are problem solving and also maintaining a healthy vocal technique.

A good vocal coach who understands where you are coming from and where you are moving towards technically, is a necessity for a singer trying to have a career. It is important to note that a vocal coach is not a voice teacher. Though they may have the exact same goals for you, a vocal coach is usually a pianist, not a singer, which means there are no grounds for them to give a singer a full blown voice lesson. I have been coaching singers for many years, and I have been in thousands(not exaggerating!) of voice lessons. I know many technical concepts and I can identify what a singer is doing to produce a sound, or if the sound is right or not right, but that does not mean that I want to go into in depth with these technical concepts. My job is to support the technical work both singer and teacher are doing by understanding it, and by making musical and language adjustments which do not get in the way and often help technically in an indirect way. I may have some technical comments to make, and I do make them, but I am always careful as to not steer the singer down a wrong path and most importantly I don’t go against the technical road the singer is on with their voice teacher.

Voice teacher vs. Vocal coach

While both help you to improve your singing, there is a difference between each of the professions. Learning what they do will help you in deciding how to go about choosing the right people to be in your team.

Voice Teacher
– Individually helps you to make the correct sounds, with proper pitch and tone
– Works on voice building, and registration
– Helps you to develop your own vocal skills; vocal production, chooses appropriate repertoire and roles.
– Lays the foundation to build your voice into its full potential and helps in the maintenance of your voice.

Vocal Coach
– From the piano they individually help (in other words coach) you on singing particular repertoire
– Focuses on style and diction – proper pronunciation of words, especially foreign languages
– Helps you to interpret and perform your repertoire (works on character, meaning, sub-text – what does the song mean?)
– Along with your voice teacher helps you build your singing repertoire.

A vocal coach is a pianist who works almost exclusively with singers and who knows the repertoire. A good vocal coach won’t interfere with vocal technique and if they notice any issues, they’ll explain to the singer what the issues are and ask the singer to discuss it with their voice teacher.

More than one of each?

As you can see, the two functions at times cross over each other, but this should only be in support of each other. As you advance in your career, you may see your voice teacher less because you are traveling, and a weekly lesson is not possible anymore and you end up checking in once or twice a month or when you start working on a new role. In this time of your life, an excellent vocal coach is very important! They will be your ears and let you know if something is wrong. They can take you through your role and advise you on a multitude of issues. The best part is that you can have several trusted vocal coaches around the world, you don’t have to have just one, but with voice teachers, it can lead to confusion to have more than one-the equivalent to “too many cooks in the kitchen”- and in my years of experience, when I have seen singers try to have more than one voice teacher, it has rarely worked out if ever.

Can a Vocal coach be a Voice Teacher?

There are vocal coaches who are neither voice teachers or pianists, they are people with a great knowledge of vocal repertoire, style, convention and how to integrate some technique. They are usually singers who do not go deep into technical concepts. They may call themselves voice teachers, but what they do is more like coaching. When you have a session with such a coach, you would have to bring a pianist with you.

Though singers can be coaches, I firmly believe that a pianist cannot be a voice teacher. If a singer or violinist would offer me a piano lesson, I would be a little perplexed as they don’t have a deep enough knowledge of playing the instrument. Since most pianists have no real idea of what it is like to sing on stage, or to even sing at all (some of us can’t really produce a healthy sound) then they should refrain from teaching someone how to sing, even though They have some technical knowledge. There are pianists out there who have studied voice extensively and they have sung in their life, and then if a singer chooses to work with a singing pianist, and follow their technical advice, that is their choice to make, but these pianists are rare. Most pianists who work with singers have had some minimal voice training, but they are not voice builders which is why my advice is to get your technique from the technical experts!

The bottom line is know exactly what you need and where to find it. Work with people who support you and each other, because you don’t want your voice teacher and your vocal coach bickering all the time-Who needs that? Your number one priority is keeping your voice healthy!

It takes a village to develop great performers and a great team is crucial, so choose wisely!

What am I?

This sounds like an existential question, but it is one that bears asking!

For years now, I have been coming across social media posts or Youtube clips of singers which don’t mention the pianist who is clearly visible and audible. When I asked some of my friends who are sometimes responsible for announcing singers on radio programs, or for social media postings why this happens, some of the answers that I received were that they often try to avoid calling a pianist “accompanist” by saying “accompanied by” the reason being that they are worried to offend the pianist, but is being called “accompanist” worse than not being mentioned at all?

Let’s look at the term “accompanist” and why it has become, for some, such a derogatory term to describe the pianist who plays with a singer or instrumentalist.

The term “accompanist” is defined as the musician who plays a musical instrument while another person is singing or playing the main part. Is this what I do? Yes, all the time. The term has nevertheless been known to imply inferiority. Fairly recently, in North America, the term “collaborative pianist” has been in use to describe what I do. I believe the term was coined somewhere in the 1980’s and then gained more mainstream popularity in the 1990’s. This term has however not reached the same popularity where I am in Europe. At the Conservatory of Amsterdam, I am called “coach” and my official title is “correpetitor” this Dutch word is actually closer to the term “collaborator” (not to be confused with “repetiteur” which is strictly used for the rehearsal-pianist) as the prefix “co” implies to collaborate whereas the term “begeleider” is the equivalent to “accompanist”. Every time that I sit at the piano and perform, I am acknowledged with a variety of titles: Piano, Pianist, Accompanist…

It has been argued that the role of “accompanist” comes with a lack of appreciation, and anonymity. One of my all time favourite books, an excellent read, very witty and a book that first brought the “humble accompanist” into the light is Gerald Moore’s Unashamed Accompanist who puts this feeling of anonymity into words that I think we all (pianists) can relate to:

“We accompanists, have our minds above such mundane things as fees. But I would like people to realise what extremely important people we accompanists are. The most enchanting lady walks on to sing, and all the ladies look at her because of what she’s wearing, and all the men look at her because – well, all the men look at her. And nobody looks at me. And I can’t blame them. Nobody notices the accompanist at all. He looks so slender and shy and so modest that people think he’s there just to do what he’s told, to follow the singer through thick and thin. Well, there’s a great deal more to it than that.”

I know I have said this phrase many times myself as I am getting ready to go on stage and take a last look in the mirror: “Well nobody is looking at me anyway!” and I have often felt overlooked after the concerts thinking “Nobody is interested in the pianist”. The truth is, if no one is sitting at the piano, then all this beautiful repertoire could not be performed, and the same goes for the singer, it takes the both of us! There has been (and still is) a discrepancy in fees between the singer/instrumentalist and the pianist, and the latter is often the afterthought appearing in much smaller letters on billboards, posters, programs and/or recordings. A great article that I recommend by Tom Service Accompanists: the unsung heroes of music explores these subjects.

I hate the term accompanist,” says Iain Burnside. “You can’t deny there are connotations that it’s a secondary entity. But unfortunately I can’t think of a better one. If you insist on being called a pianist then people think that you’re comparing yourself to Sviatoslav Richter. That’s not what it’s about: you’re just asking to be taken seriously in your own right

So how do I feel about it all? I have no huge issue with being called an accompanist if that is what I am doing. I prefer to be called “pianist” because that is what I am. I don’t personally see any use for the word “collaborative” because it is obvious that I am doing just that. There are no “collaborative singers” and if we are doing a song recital together, we should just be singer and pianist. What’s in the name anyway, as long as you are an excellent player or singer? I am also a “coach” which is something quite different in my opinion, and a possible subject for a future post.

Obviously, on this matter, I only speak for myself concerning my preferences. So, how do you know what to call your recital partner? Ask them how they wish to be addressed (everyone has a preference), how they like to be presented on the program and/or recording. Always show them either in the photo or in the video and always make sure their name is published on everything alongside your own so they don’t feel like an afterthought. These pianists have spent their lives working, studying and devoting themselves to the art of making music with others, they are your colleague so honor your relationship with each other through respect.

Musings of an opera coach

Welcome to my blog, everyone!

In these unusual times, everyone is searching for an outlet, everyone misses being seen or being heard, and that goes double for people in the arts. After I have spent approximately four months of online sessions and classes, I now finally have the time to process everything that is going on. I have time to write down thoughts, and what better place to do it than here on my old blog?

My experiences these last few months have been varied; I have learned a lot about myself. In March, when all things shut down, I too, sort of shut down. I was quite emotional and worried to see what was happening around me. At the same time, I relished my time at home. I love my house, and I never spend enough time here, so that was sort of welcome. Within a few days, I started missing work as I knew it. I was working alright, but sitting in front of a screen is not the interactive work that I so thoroughly enjoy. I started longing to make music with others, a painful longing like I have never felt before. Last year, I was also bound to my home because I was recovering from a knee surgery (more about that maybe in another post), but this longing felt different-it felt permanent. Eventually, it all started to feel normal in a strange way, and I went on in my new routine and some days, I even forgot that things were different. I have since made music with a couple of people in person, and I have found the joy in my existence again. There is, however, the nagging feeling that nothing will ever be normal again. I hope I am wrong.

As I move forward, I know now that I can do online sessions with people, especially language coaching and consultations and it is not so bad because these types of sessions translate well in an online format. Musical coaching online can work if the singer is willing, although simultaneous playing is not possible, as far as I know. All this is why I finally have had time to tweak my online presence and why I am resurrecting my blog. Here, I hope to write about different topics, post tips on auditioning, on repertoire, French Lyric diction, and I will see where this leads. I hope you come around often and see what is new!

Musings of an Opera Coach

I am Nathalie Doucet, and I am an Opera Coach, Pianist and French Lyric Diction specialist. I hope you enjoy my blog and visit my website: www.nathaliedoucet.live